Some of the most interesting mating rituals among our northern birds are the flights of the woodcock and snipe. WTIPs Jay Andersen talks with a local naturalist about “peenting” soaring, freefall and the mysterious warble in the lowlands.
Chel Anderson is a botanist and plant ecologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. She lives here in Cook County and joins us periodically to talk about phenology or what’s going on in the woods right now. Welcome, Chel.
Let’s talk about birds. Birds are mating, too. Now, of course, there’s lots of birds, but what I’d particularly like to talk about, which is, I think, pretty interesting to most people, and that is the courtship rituals of the snipe and woodcock.
Yeah. These are some of earliest returning birds, and they are very interesting birds altogether. And, as you say, their courtship rituals are quite elaborate. I know Molly had a really nice broadcast recently of the call of the woodcock. We’ll start with the woodcock, which is kind of a “beaam” sound.
So, they’re very busy. For their mating rituals, the males like to stalk around on kind of slightly open, brushy, maybe the edge of a field or could be even at the edge of an old gravel pit or any kind of opening in the woods. Part of the reason they like to be more or less in the open is that their courtship, in addition to stalking around and doing that “beaam” call, is to leap into the air and circle ever greater, wider spirals, up into the air about 300 feet. If you’re watching, they really just about disappear from view. When they get to the top, they start singing, and they’re singing this very distinctive, kind of liquid chirping song and they’re singing as they go up, and the they hover at the top of that spiral for awhile, singing away, and then they just tuck their wings and they dive down towards the ground, but they do it in this pattern like a leaf fall. So, if you’ve watched a leaf fall out of a Maple tree or a Birch tree, it’s kind of a zigzag pattern. And so they do these swoops and turns and swoops and turns, back and forth, singing all the time as they drop to the ground. Then, they hit the ground and pretty quick start up their intermittent “peenting” call again, and if there’s a female right there, they’ll kind of do this stiff-legged walk towards her. But, that aerial display and singing is what they’re using to make their mark with the female.
Now this usually happens right around dusk, doesn’t it? Or early in the morning?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Both the woodcock and the common snipe or Wilson snipe are what we would call crepuscular species. So, they primarily do all their courtship displays and interactions with eachother and feeding from just before dawn through first intense light of the day, and then starting at dusk and into the night. In the case of both species, they will do this courtship during the night, especially if there’s a moonlit night; that will be very popular for doing their courtship displays. The snipe has a little bit different take on the whole courtship thing. They like wetter places, so they’re going to be right out in the marshes or near the edges of swamps. Again, more open, shrubby or grass- and sedge-dominated places, not so much in the forested swamps. Their courtship display is very mysterious in the sound that they make, because they take off and fly very fast and incorporate these swooping dives into the circles that they make around their nesting territory. And, as they do the dives, they do the dives with their tail feathers expanded. At the base of their tail there are two feathers that are a little bit different from all the others, and they extend kind of perpendicular from the body. It’s those two tail feathers that, in the dives, the air going past them vibrates them, and it makes this “wooowooowooo” kind of sound. So, if you go out especially at dusk in most any marsh right now, you can listen to that just, very magical and mysterious sound of the snipe. They’re hard to see doing it. If there is still some light and you’re good with your binoculars and with your visual cues, you can pick them up and try to follow them as they go, but they are flying very fast, and there isn’t anything else that sounds like that.
Chel Anderson, DNR botanist and plant ecologist. Thanks for helping us understand what’s been going on around us this spring.
My pleasure, Jay